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The Dangers of Too Much Automation in Fundraising


Imagine for a second that you could mow your yard with a mower that would learn how to mow your yard the next time without you. The mower would learn your speed and turns and thousands of nuances that lead to a great-looking, freshly mowed lawn. (I’m in — automated mowing is the future!) Now imagine that your mower would only learn from you if you were wearing a blindfold (or were a 6-year old mowing for the first time). After that, your mower would automate your blind-folded (or your child’s) mowing pattern every week. (Eh, nevermind, automation is evil!).

The point is that automation is void of being good or bad. Automation is an amoral tool. What makes automation a good or bad decision in the made-up mower example above or in donor communications is a combination of the data being provided and the expertise of how to use that data.

So let’s examine this in the negative.

Marketing automation, automated donor communications, and automated workflows have these two Achilles heels that must be dealt with before you know if automation is right for your nonprofit.

Being Blindfolded

Regardless of how much experience I may have as a fundraiser or marketer (or in mowing lawns), if I’m blindfolded and don’t have the right data at my disposal, I will make poor decisions and I should have NO desire to automate those poor decisions. Those poor decisions will be made more often and with more donors, resulting in poor retention and lost revenue.

When automation is void of data (read: good data), the result, at best, is broadcasting. Broadcast fundraising is the opposite of relationship-building, the backbone of sustainable fundraising. Broadcasting means treating everyone the same, not paying attention to how that individual wants to be communicated with, and in effect, showing that you don’t care about the donor’s needs and goals, only yours.

One of the slams against marketing automation is that it’s just a euphemism for spam. Automation is not spam.

As Matt Burke at Hubspot says: “Spam is spam because of its irrelevancy, not because it showed up without warning in your inbox. In the end, if the content isn’t resonating with your audience in a personal way, it probably wasn’t worth the ‘send’ to begin with.”

Relevancy is critical, otherwise it’s just spam. Good data allows you to automate, not just what you want to send, but more importantly, what your donors want you to send them.

So here’s the danger: if you don’t have great donor data, especially around their total engagement, giving trends, and interests and preferences, don’t look to automation to solve your communication or funding woes. It will only make them worse.

Lack of Time / Expertise

Probably the biggest lure of automation of any kind to overworked fundraisers is how much time it will seem to save. But the reality is that marketing automation doesn’t so much save you time, but rather cause you to redirect it to different places. Automation requires constant care. Content must be written, topics must be up-to-the-minute relevant, and all of this must happen within a larger plan. Then you must analyze what is going out, how it’s performing, whether it’s having an impact, what adjustments need to be made, and if your time is being spent wisely. The list goes on and on.

Automation is intrinsically complicated to do right. “Right” is defined as benefiting the recipient/donor, then benefiting your mission. Automating for the purpose of sending out more communication is not a reason to automate. Knowing what to automate, whom to send it to, and when and how often to send it takes incredible precision and expertise. Don’t wing it.  That will cost you donors and thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

So where does this leave us?

Automation can solve key problems for marketers.  But you have to know which problems you’re trying to solve and what the limitations and requisites are of marketing automation. Is it providing primarily good, easily interpreted data and the time and expertise to do it right? Before you think about automation, make sure you start small. Send out a targeted email that appeals to a particular aspect of your mission based on past giving habits or an email to your most engaged volunteers who have never given, thanking them for their service and encouraging them to become $10/month donors.

These small steps can have a huge impact on your funding without the inherent risks of automation.


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